There are SO MANY TV shows based in New York – trust me, we’ve binge watched many of them on Netflix. I’m not proud of that… or am I? I’ve always wondered if New Yorkers were that crazy in real life? Luckily, Kristen is here to set the record straight. A transplant resident of New York for 5 years, Kristen considers herself a local and has graciously agreed to give us a behind-the-scene look at New York. You can find more of her awesome writing on her blog at I’m Not A Tourist, I Swear! and on Instagram @notouristiswear. Let’s talk!
Up Up and a Bear: Tell us a little bit about yourself (where you’re from, what’s your passion in life, what makes you happy/sad).
Kristen: Can I just copy this from my Tinder profile or do you want something original?
Ok fine, original it is. I’m Kristen Sarra and I would tell you my age but saying it aloud only depresses me and makes me nostalgic for the those days when I naively believed growing older would take longer. Let’s just say I’m not as young as I look in my photographs.
I’m from a small 3-mile town called Gulf Breeze, Florida. It’s the type of place that no one ever leaves. Seriously, my family was once recognized for being the oldest living generation from the original Spanish settlers to still live in the area. Did I mention said settlers moved there in the 1500s? Yeah, my family suffers from serious separation anxiety.
I didn’t grow up traveling. The first time I left the country was when I went to Italy to study when I was 19 and I haven’t stopped traveling since. Now I own a travel website where I pen (or type) my stories from around the world and I’m also a contributing travel feature writer for Coastal Lifestyle Magazine.
Travel writing is my passion. My topics focus less on must-see sites and more on interactions with local people, highlights of smaller less-visited towns, and tales on finding culture. I gravitate towards small neighborhoods or tiny towns when I travel – an inclination that stems from my own small town upbringing. I love experiencing the day-to-day life of close-knit communities in other cultures.
Up Up and a Bear: Love it! Getting to know the locals and moving at their pace is an excellent way to learn about the authentic lifestyle of those living there. Small towns are so wonderful – though, sadly, I myself haven’t done much of that lately. Anyway, I understand that you made a big move to New York from that small town living. It must have been a harrowing and exciting period of your life, what was it like?
Kristen: Cold. Because my luck is always so spectacular, I left my sunny beach town a couple of days after Christmas and flew into one of the worst blizzards on record.
Only one runway was open at LaGuardia so my plane was put into a holding pattern. It circled around the airport for hours until our pilot so cheerily announced that we were running low on fuel so he felt hopeful that they’d let us land soon. Yeah, like that didn’t make some 200 passengers even more nervous.
As if the flight wasn’t bad enough, I wound up taking the worst cab ride of my life and thought I wasn’t going to live to see my first New York sunrise. The car kept careening off the road as it slipped on the icy surface. It was pitch black out, the streets on either side were piled high with snow, and I was heading to a new home I had never even seen in person before.
There’s no such thing as an outcast here.
I finally arrived to an empty, unheated apartment with nothing but 2 suitcases full of clothes. The only thing in my new room was a bed frame, old mattress, and a handful of dead bugs. I remember thinking Oh God, what have I gotten myself into?
Yet, morning came with this amazing feeling of positivity and excitement. I jumped into my brand new snow boots and set out to explore my latest neighborhood, not even caring that the never-worn-before shoes were giving me blisters.
After that initial night, everything just felt easy. Maybe it’s because I had studied aboard 4 times while in college and was used to settling down in unfamiliar places. I never felt intimidated or scared. I felt content – like I was finally home. Everything simply fell into place and I still live in that same apartment 5 years later.
Up Up and a Bear: I applaud your spirit of adventure. I don’t know if I could have done what you did, but I guess time takes care of everything. Now that you consider yourself a “local” New Yorker, what are some myths about New York that you no longer know to be true?
Kristen: The myth that it’s big! Seriously, Manhattan is SMALL. The city is so compact that you can pretty much be anywhere within 25 minutes or less which makes it easy to be socially spontaneous. I can go to dinner in the West Village, meet up with someone afterwards on the Upper East Side, and then wind up at a nightclub in the Meatpacking District. This is a much more difficult feat in places like London or Los Angeles where you’re normally forced to commit to one area for the night since it takes a long time or is expensive to travel between other areas.
Locals also frequent the same 3 or 4 neighborhoods, same 4 or 5 coffee shops, and same 10 to 11 bars (more if you’re a lush like me). A sense of community is much easier to find in NYC than one would think. I’ve gotten to know bartenders, wait staff, and fellow patrons. I’ve run into friends in Central Park, at my favorite brunch spot, and at the bookstore. It really feels small yet at the same time there’s always something new to try. It’s the best of both worlds.
Up Up and a Bear: LIES!!! Okay I wouldn’t know, but I’ve been to New York and it was a crazy sight. I’m hoping my next visit will be more local and chill as you described. By the way, how would one become a New Yorker?
Kristen: Oh us New Yorkers have very strict rules that you must adhere too. You must:
- Do everything short of selling your soul to avoid Times Square. Just kidding – you’d actually sell your soul if it came down to it.
- Excel at jaywalking.
- Date someone for the sole reason that they have a washer and dryer in their apartment.
- Measure time in city blocks. Like Be there soon, I’m only 7 blocks away.
- Cry openly on the subway without giving a f***
(I) ate multiple boxes of shrooms in Amsterdam.
Ok so I could go on and on but the truth is anyone can become a New Yorker. All you have to do is move here and experience life in Manhattan for a year or so. It’s such an international city and hardly anyone is actually from here. Of all the friends I’ve made since moving here, not one was born and raised in New York. In fact, I think I’ve only dated one guy who was originally from the city.
I don’t think there really is a ‘typical’ New Yorker. The diversity here is just outstanding and it’s a testament to how open-minded and accepting the people of New York are. It’s a truly beautiful thing. There’s no such thing as an outcast here.
Up Up and a Bear: I think I need to stop watching shows about New York because it’s nothing like you’re describing – lies my TV told me… New York is a big place and most people are going to flock to the more famous sights and attractions, but if they were looking for something more authentic, where would they go and what would they do?
Kristen: I always joke that real life in New York begins below 14th Street. I’ll admit to being bias though – I rarely surface above it if I can help it. If I had to pick one area where tourists are the most rare (though they are pretty much everywhere in the city), I would say the Lower East Side. It’s not pretty to look at on the outside but its home to the best coffee shops in NYC as well as great hidden restaurants. It really comes alive at night and its slew of music venues and clubs far outshines those of the trendy (and expensive) Meatpacking District. The Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side is my favorite museum in the city, yet it receives only a tiny fraction of out-of-town visitors.
I wrote a more detailed post on my blog called 150 Things Locals Do In New York City where I give away all my secret spots!
Up Up and a Bear: Okay, if you’re reading this right now – go read that post Kristen mentioned above – now! So Kristen, do you miss life in the small community of Gulf Breeze, Florida?
Kristen: I don’t miss my old life in Gulf Breeze per se but I do miss being a part of my friends and family’s lives.
I loved growing up there and living there after college. I miss my big 2-story, 3-bedroom house. I miss my kitchen and entertaining. I was always cooking and having people over. I would hangout with the same group of 20 people all the time. I lived 10 minutes from my parents. I was a part of my grandma’s book club. I had a boyfriend.
I never felt intimidated or scared. I felt content – like I was finally home.
However, I was always restless. I would go through mood swings and be testy for no real reason. I’ve never done well with having a routine and life in a small town is very much a routine. There’s no major transport hub so traveling was difficult and expensive. It was great for a while but I was never entirely happy living there and I had trouble seeing a future for myself. I felt like I couldn’t relate to most people my age. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d traveled a lot and no one could understand my burning need to see the world. Marriage and kids had never been something I’d particularly cared about and that’s all I could see for myself if I continued to stay there. So I left.
I do miss my family and friends. It can be hard when the whole family is together and I’m thousand of miles away. I had to miss my brother’s engagement party last week and I’ve only met his fiancée a handful of times. A lot of my friends are married with children and I miss out on watching their kids grow up and being a part of their lives. One of my closest friends is pregnant and it’s hard not being there for her.
But that’s all part of living life on the road. I still stay in touch and I’m so much happier than I was while living there. It makes those short visits home that much more special.
Up Up and a Bear: I know what you mean. I’m the only one from my big extended family living in the Pacific Northwest. And as much as I miss being with my family, I’ve formed my own family and friends here so it’s okay. I cherish my time with them whenever I get the opportunity though. On your blog, you write extensively, and quite hilariously so, about off-path adventures and the desire to experience cultural authenticity. For most travelers, going off the beaten path can be quite frightening, especially if you’re traveling alone. What is your advice for the intrepid travelers? How should they proceed to travel like a local?
Kristen: I love this question because it is the single most thing I struggle with when traveling. Despite how it may seem in my blog posts, I’m not naturally at ease in strange places or with strangers themselves.
I’ve come to learn that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When traveling, it’s best to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. It’s what helps you to learn and to grow. Otherwise you end up never leaving the hotel bar except to visit tourist sites where you are surrounded by other Americans. You wind up returning home with a souvenir or two but with very little insight into the local culture.
There’s no better way to challenge yourself than to get off the tourist trail. Stay in a hotel or hostel outside of the city center. Visit a small town rather than a capital city. Belly up next to the oldest man in the bar – chances are he’s a local with lots of stories to tell. Find a restaurant that’s a good 30 minutes walk away from whichever tourist site you just visited. Ask the concierge what he does with his time off. There are so many ways to meet locals and the reward is always worth it.
What are you going to remember most – a visit to a museum or that time you were invited to supper by a local Hungarian who proceeded to cook you a meal of chicken paprikash while explaining goulash is in fact not consumed by locals like the guidebook states? While I may not remember much after dinner thanks to the bottle of homemade palinka we consumed, I’ll never forget her hospitality.
Up Up and a Bear: Thank you! Hearing you say that you aren’t as comfortable and have to push yourself makes me feel better about myself. I truly try to make my trips as authentic as possible but it’s just a scary thing to do. And you’re right, sometimes you just have to go for it and get off the tourist trail a bit. And with that, what’s the craziest thing you’ve done on the road? Was it skinny-dipping on the rooftop of a Vietnamese house (without water)?
Kristen: I think it’s just called streaking when you skinny-dip without any water present and yes that’s definitely up there on my list of craziest adventures. I’ve also been locked in a fake hospital in Prague, almost drowned while canyoning in Portugal, climbed up a waterfall (yes up – not beside, underneath, or above – but up through a waterfall) in Jamaica, stared down a wild dingo in Australia, and ate multiple boxes of shrooms in Amsterdam.
There was also that thing I did in Paris that must never ever be spoken of. Ever.
Up Up and a Bear: Okay… you win! And by the way, your secrets are NOT safe with me so it’s best we not discuss your Paris incident (or should I say AWESOME adventure?). Anyway, I really like your desire to feel like a part of the place you’re visiting. Where in your travels have you felt this way the most?
Kristen: Scotland. As you can tell by the lengthy answers to your questions, I talk A LOT and the Scottish have a propensity for storytelling so we get along pretty well. They’re so friendly no matter where in the region you are.
In Stirling, I went to a local sauna and steam room and started chatting with a resident who later invited me to go hiking with him and his family. Then there was my tour guide at the Deanston Distillery who told me to say hi to his friend Mary at the Curly Coo and who wanted to introduce me to his son in London. I once had a wild night out in Edinburgh with locals who took me out for drinks and dinner. I always feel so at home in Scotland and it’s the one place I travel to at least once a year.
Up Up and a Bear: You should look into getting an honorary Scottish citizenship! It’s been my pleasure talking to you Kristen! Thank you so much for helping to illuminate all the myths of New York. Before we go, please tell us about your blog. What do you want to accomplish with it? What should readers expect to see?
Kristen: My blog, I’m Not A Tourist, I Swear! is a travel blog for the culturally curious, those less concerned with guidebook sites and more interested in hanging out with locals, seasoned travelers searching for new places to discover, those who enjoy slow travel, and for those who are constantly traveling in search of a deeper connection.
Readers can expect detailed and informative posts on off-the-beaten path places, little-known neighborhoods, offbeat adventure travel, and local culture.
I really try to hone in and focus on the cultural aspects of a city or country. For example, I won’t write a ‘list’ post like Top 8 Things to do in Lisbon where you’ll see your typical rundown of tourist sites. Instead I’ll call it 8 Unforgettable Ways to Experience Lisbon and I’ll detail the local practices I encountered and tell you how to immerse yourself in the Lisboeta culture so you feel as if you’re a true part of it rather than just a passing visitor.
I want to encourage people to dig beneath the surface of wherever they’re visiting and try to make an authentic connection with the local culture and people. Isn’t that what travel is all about? Finding and understanding the world through the eyes of people different to yourselves?
I hope my discussion with Kristen provided some comfort and inspiration for you to try traveling outside the box – maybe you can try to be a local in New York with Kristen’s excellent tips.
If you like this post, please share with your friends and let me know down below if you have questions or feedback for myself or Kristen. For more tips from locals, read How to be Dutch – and interview with @dutchgirltravels.